/ 14 June 2011

Ben Ali critics oppose his trial in absentia in Tunisia

Critics of Tunisia’s ousted president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali on Tuesday spoke out against the government’s decision to put him on trial in absentia next week, saying they would rather see him in the dock.

Ben Ali is facing several charges of corruption and possession and trafficking drugs and guns, after fleeing to Saudi Arabia on January 14 amid a massive popular uprising after 23 years in power. On Monday, the government said his trial would start on June 20.

A veteran foe of the previous regime, journalist Taoufik Ben Brik denounced the planned trial as a “smokescreen”.

“Everything has been done to avoid a real trial. This is a publicity stunt to manipulate public opinion,” Ben Brik said.

“It won’t be the trial we wanted for Ben Ali. He is responsible for thousands of cases of torture; he is responsible for hundreds of deaths. His family looted the country. These are serious crimes. How can we try him if he is not there?”

Ben Brik said he was convinced that there was a “trade-off” under which Ben Ali left Tunisia in exchange for impunity.

“This is frustrating,” said prominent Tunisian human rights activist Radhia Nasraoui. “There’s no rush. We could have kept up the pressure on Saudi authorities to have him extradited.”

Tunisian officials have said the first charges against him and his wife would relate to the discovery of $27-million in cash, weapons and drugs in presidential palaces.

They form the basis of only two of the dozens of inquiries into the first couple, their family and the regime’s former ministers and officials, which include murder investigations.

Authorities have said they are also looking into cases of murder, abuse of power, trafficking of archaeological artefacts and money laundering.

“I would not begin by Ben Ali, I would start with those who are here,” Ben Brik said.

Omar Mestiri, a founder of the National Council of Liberties rights group, said he hoped the trial would be that “of a system” and that it would help “to rebuild institutions with more respect for citizens and the transparent management of public wealth”.

The uprising that toppled Ben Ali set off others that rocked the Arab world, including one that removed Egypt’s veteran leader, Hosni Mubarak, in February. — AFP